Everybody feels different about themselves one way or another, but we all going the same way. Just taking different roads to get there, that’s all.
— Queenie (Taraji P. Henson)
“No need for anybody to suffer.” As Hurricane Katrina bears down on New Orleans, Daisy (Cate Blanchett) lies dying in a hospital room, moaning softly. Her daughter Caroline (Julia Ormond) hovers over her, along with a nurse who comes in and out of the room, worried about her own young son while she’s away from him during the storm. As the determined that Daisy not only not suffer — at least in her final moments — but also that she know how much Caroline loves her. As Caroline puts it, she’s heard from a friend how painful it is not to be able to express that sort of love to a dying mother.
The notion of suffering is at the center of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. With the wind rising and the rain pounding against Daisy’s window, Caroline makes every effort to ease her mother’s distress, even as Daisy, old and wise, understands the futility of her actions — the pillow plumping and the needle adjusting, And so, as she lies back against her pillow, her eyes rolled back and her breath shallow, Daisy makes her own effort, to instruct her kind and unhappy child in the ways of the world, to explain to her that even in pain, joy, generosity, and understanding are not only possible, but necessary.
Caroline learns her lesson by way of a most exhausted movie device, the framed flashbacks, here doled out in a diary written by Benjamin (Brad Pitt). If Caroline is slow to realize his import to her existence, you likely will catch on pretty much immediately, but still, the narrative and her place in it unfold most gradually, courtesy of Eric Roth’s ponderous script. Inspired by F. Scott Fitzgerald’s considerably nimbler short story, Benjamin’s story is multiply framed, first by that heavy-handed storm metaphor and then by the tale of a clock, made by a mustachioed engineer named Mr. Gateau. “Mr. Cake,” smiles Daisy as she remembers what’s on the page and the film slips back to 1918. The clock is born of his own suffering, that is, the loss of his precious son in World War I. As Mr. Gateau unveils the clock — designed to loom over a train station and thus serve as a public marker for his grief — he explains for his audience its most curious aspect, that it runs backwards. He’s made it this way, he says, in hopes that “the boys we lost in the war might stand and come home again, home to farm, work, have children, to lead long full lives. Perhaps my own son,” he sighs, “might come home again. I’m sorry if I’ve offended anybody. I hope you enjoy my clock.”
Thus the movie sets in motion its primary theme, the intersections of suffering and time. It’s not exactly enjoyment that’s at stake, as the father’s cheerless intonation speaks more clearly than his words. And yet, the Gumpish saga that follows is often enjoyable, as well as episodic and awkward. As Benjamin’s voice takes over for Daisy’s and overlaps with Caroline’s, he recounts his birth at the end of the war, a fortuitous time, he’s told, because it brings together peace and prosperity, those twin principles that guide policies and mask realities during Benjamin’s lifetime. Here the gimmick of the clock jumpstarts the essential plot, as Benjamin emerges from his mother’s womb and old man then ages backwards. The shock is too much for his father Thomas (Jason Flemyng), who instantly forgets his dying wife’s last request that he ensure the baby “will have a place.” In fact, the panicky dad deposits the child on a not-so-random doorstep, that of the old folks’ home run by Queenie (Taraji P. Henson).
Diagnosed with “all the deterioration and infirmities” of an 80-year-old man, Benjamin seems destined to die right away, but she gathers him up and claims him as her own. Explaining him as the child of an off-screen sister unable to look after him, Queenie declares that despite his unfortunate whiteness, he is a “miracle.” She proceeds to raise him amid her charges, old people in the process of dying. Though her own man, Tizzy (Mahershalalhashbaz Ali), worries at her decision (“Are you right out of your mind?”), she embraces the utter difference — the unique experience — Benjamin embodies. “You never know what’s coming for you,” she says, a line that her son will repeat a few too many times.
Here again, the movie lays out a simple-seeming opposition in order to consider the complications that lie beneath. For Benjamin, every day is an adventure (and more to the point, a gift, as he was supposed to die during his first hours). The home, Benjamin says, is a “place of great routine,” where his housemates create order out of their own impending chaos, seeking stability and reassurance even as he, a child in his short wrinkly body, seeks adventures — tilting his wheelchair near the edge of the porch, hoping to see what’s “around the next corner.”
Benjamin’s adventures are interrupted by occasional returns to stormy New Orleans, where the unnamed nurse (Sonya Leslie-Shepherd), suffers not knowing what will happen to her child while she’s stuck at work. But for the most part they take on a clunkily episodic shape, each moment in his time marked by a colorful figure — tugboat captain Mike (Jared Harris, boisterous), say, or Elizabeth Abbot (Tilda Swinton, sublime), a married woman with whom Benjamin comes to adore. As he’s out finding various fortunes, he writes home, leaving Queenie largely out of his experience (which is very too bad, as Henson is excellent and their intriguing interracial family, in the South as eras shift, is pretty much ignored).
Instead, Benjamin is intermittently focused on the love of his life, Daisy, whom he meets when both are children (her grandmother is living at the home) and who grows up to be a dancer, a career that grants her some measure of world-traveling on her own. Their romance gives the film an oddly conventional outline. The lovers grow close and apart, their brief perfect time together made painful by their knowledge that it is, indeed, brief, defined by the point when their ages match exactly. It’s an inelegant but provocative means to measure their ostensibly transcendent connection: as he grows young and she grows old, they share but a single moment when their bodies and visions and hopes can easily coincide. But that suffering is what creates time, makes changes visible. If the romance reduces this concept, it also makes clear Benjamin’s sense of himself as different each day.